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America’s Next Top Musical

Date: Sep 24, 2009


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By Linda Buchwald

What makes a good musical? For some, it’s a catchy score. For others, it’s a strong book. For Lily Hung, program director of the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), it’s good bones. 

“There are a lot of factors involved in what makes good bones,” says Hung. “Where are the characters right now in their dramaturgical development? How strong is the narrative? What’s the music like? Is it something that is engaging? That sounds fresh to us?”

At this year’s festival, running from September 28 through October 18, audiences can judge the bones of thirty full productions as well as shows presented in special developmental and concert series. If history is any indication, some of this year’s crop will be future sensations. Tony Award-winner Next to Normal, Tony nominee [title of show], and long-running Off Broadway hit Altar Boyz are just some of NYMF’s high profile graduates.

NYMF was founded in 2004 as a way to attract producers and audiences to new musicals, and shows can join the festival in many ways. The Next Link Project, for instance, is an open submission process in which over 400 titles are narrowed down to twelve. Because some of the Next Link artists are working on their first musical, they get more support than other productions at the festival, including funding, networking opportunities, and a dramaturg.
Hung fills out the season by personally scouting new works and taking tips about up-and-comers. “If all the shows that come in through the Next Link happen to be edgy rock musicals, then I can balance it out with more traditional love stories or hip-hop or whatever else I find outside the open application process,” she says.

This year’s slate includes a new focus on international work. For the first time, NYMF has partnered with South Korea’s Daegu International Musical Festival (DIMF) in a production exchange. My Scary Girl, presented at DIMF in 2008, will receive a full production at NYMF, and a musical from this year’s NYMF will be mounted at DIMF next year.

My Scary Girl, performed in Korean with English supertitles, is a comedy about a professor who suspects his girlfriend might be a serial killer. It is a collaboration between a Korean (Kyoung-Ae Kang, who wrote the book and lyrics) and an American (Will Aronson, who wrote the music).

Another international show, the politically charged Mo Faya, comes from Kenya and was chosen via Next Link. “We were really excited when one day we got this package that was postmarked from Nairobi,” Hung says. Eric Wainaina, whom Hung dubs “the Bono of Nairobi,” wrote the music and book, which follows a radio DJ in Nairobi who is torn between protecting his comfortable job and broadcasting the atrocities he sees on the street.

Anjou, A Tale of Horror may be about French royalty in the sixteenth century, but it’s performed by a Mexican youth theatre company. “It’s a bunch of incredibly talented Mexican teenagers who are coming in and doing this pop opera about the Medicis,” Hung says.

Of course, not everything about NYMF is international. Every season, the festival features some of New York’s most prominent musical theatre performers. Judas & Me, about Judas’s mother, features Ann Harada (Avenue Q) and Barbara Walsh (Company). Mary Testa (Xanadu, Guys and Dolls) and Jenn Colella (High Fidelity) star in All Fall Down, a dramatic piece about a college student who survives a six-story fall. Fans of The Amazing Race will recognize season thirteen winner Nick Spangler, who headlines Fantasy Football: The Musical?, about two sports geeks who create the ultimate fan experience.

If you’re looking for marquee-name composers, then you should sample the festival’s developmental series, which lets established writers present stripped-down workshops of their latest material. Punk Princess, about a blueblood from London who fakes her past to get into the New York punk scene, features music by Passing Strange’s Stew and Heidi Rodewald, and the legendary Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have written a new score for Nightingale and the Satin Woman, based on William Kotzwinke’s fantastical book.

If you’re still having trouble deciding, the Taster’s Menu on NYMF’s website sorts every show at the festival by subject matter and musical genre. In addition, each show has its own page on the site, with cast and creative info, Twitter and Facebook links, and in some cases even audio clips. Hung says, “We have so many different kinds of shows that I would shocked if someone didn’t find their next new favorite musical at the festival.”


NYMF main page (

Taster’s Menu (